As those who have dealt with the aftermath of a fatal accident will know, a Coroner’s inquest can be a long, drawn out process. It is not uncommon for inquests involving workplace deaths to take place many years after the accident occurred whilst the Coroner awaits the findings of any CPS or HSE investigation. Inquests are also full of uncertainties due to the wide discretion Corners have in how they run the inquests they hold, including what evidence to call and what disclosure should be released to the interested parties before the inquest.
Fortunately, the Government has launched a consultation on possible reforms to the rules governing coroners’ inquests to try to remedy these, and other, perceived failings.
Amongst the proposals are:
- more prescriptive disclosure provided on request at any time after the investigation commences;
- consideration of a target time for inquests, similarly no inquest should take place more than 12 months after initial reporting without an explanation being provided to the Chief Coroner;
- employing the powers conferred on the Chief Coroner to direct a coroner to conduct an investigation, this is particularly apt to specialist inquests, such as deaths in service, or deaths in custody, the Chief Coroner has already indicated that he has considered having specially trained coroners hearing the former;
- broadening the admissibility of documentary evidence ;
- permitting evidence by other means, such as video link;
- reducing the time limit for responses to rule 43 reports from 56 days to 1 month and requiring that responses include a timetable for actions to be taken to prevent other deaths;
- requirements to release bodies for burial within 30 days if possible;
- the introduction of two new verdicts, "drink/drug related" and "road traffic collision".
The aim of the reforms reflects the current drive for proceedings to be streamlined to provide a quicker more cost effective service. There is a strong argument in favour of prescriptive rules to combat inconsistent practices which have led to similar inquests being listed for different lengths with different scopes of enquiry.
The proposed rules will also modernise the procedures of the coroner's court including recognising the value of case management (pre-inquest review's will have a basis in the rules). There will be an emphasis on releasing a body promptly and reaching a verdict as quickly as possible. This more structured approach will be a comfort to families having to deal with an inquest into the death of a loved one. It aims to place the families back at the heart of the inquest process, and will hopefully avoid families, in extreme cases, having waited up to 5 years for a verdict.
For prospective defendants to health and safety prosecutions, the changes would reduce the delays in gaining resolution of the incident. Whilst not obliged to, the HSE often await the outcome of an inquest before taking a decision on enforcement action so with a quicker coronial process, the decision to prosecute and the final hearings should, in theory, be brought forward too. In addition, the disclosure provisions will ensure that early and comprehensive disclosure is provided avoiding an “ambush” and unnecessary surprises and delays at the inquest hearing itself.
It remains to be seen whether stricter timetabling of inquests and post mortems will affect matters. It is conceivable that this could present difficulties obtaining expert evidence, much would depend on how these proposed rules were enforced. The final recommendations of the consultation will be eagerly awaited.This information is intended as a general discussion surrounding the topics covered and is for guidance purposes only. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be regarded as a substitute for taking legal advice. DWF is not responsible for any activity undertaken based on this information.